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Peter Bart's controversial reign is ending at Variety

April 07, 2009|John Horn and Claudia Eller

For much of the 20th century, Variety was the entertainment industry's bible, a must-read of Hollywood. Barely into the 21st, the venerable trade newspaper has been dethroned by bloggers and collapsing revenue. Now its formidable editor in chief -- who taps out blog posts on a typewriter and reads e-mails on paper -- has ended his 20-year reign as the publication looks to remake itself for the digital age.

Peter Bart, a Quaker-educated New Yorker with a Perry White temper, William F. Buckley vocabulary and owlish countenance who has been the object of both awe and scorn within the industry he has simultaneously embraced and ridiculed, will remain on Variety's masthead. But the post is widely seen throughout Hollywood as ceremonial because he no longer will run the publication's news operation or shape its editorial coverage.

Under the stewardship of Bart, the 104-year-old Variety has struggled with the same problems facing the movie studios and television networks it covers: new competition from the Internet and an economic crisis that is decimating advertiser spending.

After months of speculation, Variety's owners, Reed Business Information, quietly announced Sunday that Bart would be replaced by his No. 2, Timothy M. Gray, as the newspaper's top editor.

Bart's leaving signals the end of an era for both a paper and a colorful, often controversial newsroom leader. Writers and editors say Bart, a former studio executive and newspaper reporter, ran Variety as a fiefdom -- rewarding friends, slighting enemies, pitting reporters and editors against one another -- and all with showman's zeal for self-promotion.

Although Bart's management tactics served the paper well in the 1990s and early into this decade, his influence -- like that of his rival newspaper, the Hollywood Reporter -- has been greatly diminished in recent years, as has his publication's revenue.

For the last six months, Daily Variety's circulation was 24,740, down from a 2001 peak of 35,716. In the first quarter, advertising pages, which were already down sharply from 2007, fell 37%. Like many newspapers, Variety has laid off reporters and editors in recent months, and current issues of the paper have been virtually ad-free.

"This is the worst position publishing has been in for the 30 years since I have been working in the business," said Neil Stiles, Variety's president.

When Bart took over Weekly Variety in 1989 and Daily Variety three years later, both publications were stolid, slow-footed and sometimes unprofessional publications -- correspondents sometimes were both reporting on and selling ads to the companies they covered.

"One of Peter's first acts was to say that had to stop right now," recalled former Variety reporter Charles Fleming.

The papers were often filled with inscrutable showbiz argot -- "Stix Nix Hix Pix" was one famous Variety headline about the poor performance of rural films in the heartland -- and Bart labored to make the papers more readable, adding newsier columns and an array of special sections honoring Hollywood titans.

He also tried to expand Variety's appeal to a broader audience, launching V Life, a Hollywood lifestyle magazine, in 2003 (it folded in 2006).

"He didn't want Variety to be a trade newspaper," said Jonathan Taylor, a former Variety editor. "He wanted it to be an intersection between a great business newspaper like the Wall Street Journal and a great consumer newspaper like the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times. He was always trying to make it more sophisticated and in-depth."

In a way, it was Bart's relationship with the biggest show business players that defined Variety's movie and television coverage and made it essential reading among industry insiders -- and also, by unwillingness to probe behind the scenes, exposed it to its harshest criticism.

Variety still feeds the town a steady diet of stories about studio executive hirings and firings, agents' signing new talent, A-list stars landing plum roles and the latest deals for the town's most prominent writers and directors.

"He really enjoyed the big-studio, breaking-news stories -- like DreamWorks moving from Paramount to Universal to Disney," said Anne Thompson, a contributing writer at Variety. "News drove the whole operation."

In its heyday, agents would rush to the paper to see if client news had made the paper's front page, and distributors would start to tally losses if their new movies had received a negative review. The especially hapless would earn one of Bart's sometimes caustic open letters -- filmmakers like James Cameron among them -- in which Bart would offer unsolicited career advice.

"Bart isn't everybody's cup of tea," said Charlie Koones, former publisher of Variety. "But he was fun to work with and he shaped that newsroom and made it into his own image and likeness."

Koones, who was forced out last year, credited Bart with putting "a lot of punch" into Variety, which was "sleepy" when he took it over.

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